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A History of Capitol Hill Alleys

Washington DC is home to a large number of historical alleys. Many of those alleys are located on Capitol Hill and are still thriving. However, a long history of activism and regulation has haunted the alleys, and those living there, for a century.

Even though alleys were introduced in the L’Enfant Plan, dated 1793-1796, the number of alley dwellings in the city before the Civil War was limited, but grew considerably in the decades to follow. Alleys were meant to provide access to the rear of large lots where there might be a stable, kitchen, or animals. After the Civil War, a large influx of African Americans increased the number of inhabited alleys and reversed the racial make-up of alley dwellers from white to black. By 1871, the great majority of the city's alley dwellers remained unskilled workers and 81 percent of them were African American.

Identifying those responsible for the construction of alley houses from the end of the Civil War until 1877 when building permits were required is problematic. There are several explanations. Some freed slaves may have built on alley property. The Society of Friends built a number of dwellings to shelter runaway slaves. However, the post war surge increased the need for low-income housing which was not meet. This allowed alley-house owners to increase their rents which lead to overcrowding. To meet the demand for housing, many alley buildings intended for other uses were made available or new ones constructed. According to the Intelligencer, reported in 1865, many of the new buildings were made of cut-rate lumber and covered with tar or felt. The houses were divided into apartments some 12 x 14 feet in dimension. After the institution of building permits in 1877 the names of the owners of the cheaply made dwellings were made public.

Congressional restrictions on alley construction were followed in 1894 by the organization of citizen groups advocating for the elimination of alley dwellings. In 1904, an alley survey and report was commissioned and associated with a publicity campaign that convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to take action on the situation. He urged Congress to conduct their own study into the state of alleys.

A large percentage of the alleys offering housing were located on Capitol Hill. A 1912 alley survey listed over 15 alleys in the neighborhood. Some of the larger alleys were Navy Place (now Ellen Wilson Place,) with 80 dwellings, Browns Court with 25 buildings and Marks Court (now F Street Terrace and Archibald Walk,) with 22 buildings. Other alleys included Kings Court, Gessford Court, Rumsey Court, Harris Court, and Terrace Court, Millers Court, Bassett’s Alley and Groff’s Court as well as others. Two alleys near Congress were Capitol Court and Justice Court (previously Bassett’s Alley.) Only three sites in the city retain the original alley dwellings identified in the 1912 survey. Two of these alleys reside on Capitol Hill: F Street Terrace and Gessford Court. Because the alley dwellings faced inward there was a sense of isolation for those living there. The physical layout was different from the owner’s street houses that faced outward. Because of the distance and obstruction from the owners and street housing the alley dwellings were considered “hidden communities.” However, within the alley dwellings was a tightly woven community.

Significant evidence suggests that there was a strength of an extended family and kinship network within the alley community; members performed functions ranging from child-rearing, socialization and socializing to extending considerable support in times of trouble. These extended-augmented family networks represent adjustments to a new environment, displaying continuity with the slave and post-Civil War rural experience as well as with the larger ghetto experience of more recent years. The more equitable sex roles, overcrowding and sharing of common facilities also represent continuities with the past. Residents of the alleys were able to manage their expenses by partnering with others from whom they could rely on for help. Other practices included living in fewer rooms to save on rental costs. The interior arrangement and decor of alley-houses demonstrate order and ingenuity in spite of limited space and resources. The backyard clutter reported by most observers turned out to be protection against economic disaster; junk was collected for supplemental income and often served as insurance for hard times.

Interiors of alley houses also contain some of the simple but decorative features that adorned the exteriors. Woodwork, both plain and ornate, lined the windows, doors, floors, and ceilings. Coal or wood stoves were used to heat living rooms, but almost all rooms were illuminated with oil lamps. Interior decoration ranged from wallpaper to plaster in varying conditions of repair. Furnishings appear to be few and well used with chairs covered with slipcovers and beds and straight chairs serving as a combination living room, bedroom, and kitchen. Kitchens could be located at either the front or the rear; in cases where there was only one downstairs room, the kitchen took up a large part of it. In any case, the kitchen appears to have been the center of activity within the household. A wood-burning stove, oil lamps, a small table and an icebox were common kitchen furnishings. The room was also important because it was where washing took place. Perhaps the most striking fact about the black experience in Washington is that the city experienced not one large migration, but several between 1820s and 1850.

More activism took place from 1900 to 1906. By 1911, the housing reform movement was again active, with publicity campaigns. Reformers were able to gain conversion of one major alley, Willow Tree Alley, SW. The First Lady, Ellen Wilson actively sought passage of legislation to end alley dwellings and was largely responsible for its passage. (An alley community was named for her, formerly Navy Place.) However, World War I and the accompanying housing shortage led to the postponement of this provision. After the War, Congress passed further extensions of the deadline, and the legislation was weakened in 1927 by an adverse court ruling. Where the progressive housing reformers largely failed, business and particularly Henry Ford's inexpensive automobiles, inadvertently succeeded in removing many alley dwellings to house cars. But other factors led to the retreat from the inhabited alleys. While Congress was imposing restrictions on alley house construction in 1892, city trolley construction was already underway. This offered an inexpensive and efficient means of transportation, the trolley would ultimately help release the concentrated population of the pedestrian city.

During the Depression, New Deal reform leaders, including Eleanor Roosevelt, again sought the removal of the alley housing. In 1934 Congress created The Alley Dwelling Authority "to provide for the discontinuance of the use as dwellings of the buildings situated in the alleys of the District of Columbia." No alley houses were to be inhabited after July 1, 1944. Despite legal entanglements and limited funds, the ADA did make considerable progress in opening alleys and rejuvenating the old dwellings. However, Capitol Hill's slums existed well into the 1950's. As with the earlier reform movement, a World War, and the resulting housing shortage postponed enforcement of the ban this time until 1955.

Changes in transportation that made alley dwellings outdated also insured their survival, on a small scale. As suburban tracts spread out farther from the city during the late 1940's and early 1950's, a counter movement began. The movement to restore Georgetown started in the 1930's and by the late 1940's and 1950's small scale restoration had begun on Capitol Hill. By 1970, at least 20 inhabited alleys remained with 192 heads of household reported in the city directory. Forty-two houses were listed as vacant. By 1950, virtually every dwelling was improved to include electricity and indoor plumbing.

Nina Tristani, Co-owner of N&M House Detectives

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